In what turned out to be his last year of life, musical icon and pop-culture impresario Prince hit a high-mark last May when he responded to the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest in Baltimore by performing a local charity concert and releasing a song dedicated to and titled "Baltimore."
That effort, nearly a year before his death Thursday at the age of 57, now stands as one of the ever-influential artist's final forays into the national conversation around racial politics and the challenges of modern urbanism — and as such will hold an enduring spot in a growing national archive dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement and the Baltimore unrest at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The museum, which is set to open this year on the National Mall in Washington, has obtained as part of its search for items related to the Baltimore unrest a limited-edition poster from Prince's May 10 "Rally 4 Peace" at the Royal Farms Arena, as well as a T-shirt from the event, according to museum curator Aaron Bryant, a Northwest Baltimore resident.
The items are among a broader collection of photographs, fliers, three-dimensional objects and picket signs collected from Baltimore by museum staff in the last year in an effort to chronicle the nation's modern history as it unfolds, Bryant said.
"Our Black Lives Matter collecting is really a reflection of how our museum is in the community, as part of the community, and the things that matter to the community also matter to us," Bryant said in a statement about the collection. "Our museum isn't solely about researching the distant past as history. We're also about recognizing the critical transitions in present moments that will one day become important histories for future generations."
Protests in Baltimore after Gray's death from injuries suffered in police custody, and in Ferguson, Mo., after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, "really do reflect some sort of social and political shift," Bryant said — and thus must be preserved.
Tulani Salahu-Din, an Owings Mills resident and content development and three-dimensional object collection specialist at the museum, said "many decades from now, the objects of everyday use" that make up the collection "will be the vital material culture needed to help interpret the social unrest in Baltimore."
"When people are simply going about their work, doing what they feel called to do, they don't always know the tangible materials of their trade can be used to tell compelling stories, to document history," Salahu-Din said.
In addition to the items from Prince's concert, the museum has also collected a costume from a dance performance at Morgan State University, photos and videos from rallies and demonstrations across the city — including from local photographer Devin Allen — and "placards, T-shirts, and picket signs" from Baltimore organizations, including the 300 Men March and the People's Power Assembly, Bryant said.
It also has a broom and a rake used by members of the Newborn Community of Faith on Pennsylvania Avenue to clean up the day after the worst of the rioting, he said.
Staff also continue to be on the hunt for artifacts that could expand the collection's perspective of the Black Lives Matter movement nationally and the events in Baltimore, including the initial clashes between police and protesters near Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 25.
"We also have interest in collecting and representing different vantage points," Bryant said, "including objects and perspectives from community activists; law enforcement; politicians and lawyers involved in cases; businesses and community groups affected by protests and unrests; as well as government and community agencies."
When it opens, the museum will have about 80,000 square feet of floor space for exhibits on cultural themes such as music, theater and art; community themes such as regionalism, sports, military, faith and activism; and historical themes such as slavery and the struggle for freedom. It will also include space for events since 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots broke out in Baltimore and other cities across the country.
In addition to its permanent exhibits, the museum's broader collection will be used for temporary exhibits, academic publications, the museum's website and educational programs.
The curators are encouraging anyone interested in donating items from Baltimore's protests or unrest to fill out an object donation form for museum staff to review at nmaahc.si.edu/Collections/Acquisitions.
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